Steak, chips and a glass of 1881 Lafite
‘ IWOULDN’T recommend the chorizo-stuffed scallops,’’ waiter Lisa Shell tells us with disarming honesty. I ask her if the chef knows she says that. ‘‘ Oh, yes, I’ve told him.
‘‘ I think the taste of the chorizo overpowers the scallop, but he loves the dish. It’s up to you, but . . .’’
Shell is also the first waiter I’ve encountered who discourages us from running up the bill.
‘‘ The side portions are large, and there are a few little extra nibbles from the chef, so if you want to leave room for dessert — and, believe me, you do— then I’d recommend ordering a smaller portion of a better quality steak rather than go for a large one,’’ she explains.
We’re at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida, and it’s like no other restaurant I’ve experienced.
Several pages of the menu are given over to describing the different cuts of meat, their various flavours and textures, and how they’re best prepared and cooked. The meats have been aged for five to eight weeks, the steaks are cut as they are ordered and then cooked over a natural wood charcoal grill.
But the most astonishing thing about Bern’s is not that it serves the finest steaks in the US— Florida has always been prime cattle country — but that it has the largest wine cellar in the world. Bern’s has a half million bottles, which is about 50,000 more than its nearest rival, La Tour d’Argent in Paris.
As La Tour d’Argent opened for business in 1582 in the capital of the world’s greatest winemaking nation, and Bern’s dates back to just 1956 in a state not exactly known for its vintage wines, you have to raise a glass to the newcomer’s founder.
Bern Laxer (pictured) was a missionary for wine. When he began collecting in the 1960s, he toured France buying up stocks of wine the average American wine drinker had never heard of, and today about 65 per cent of the list is still French. Laxer also believed good wine should be affordable, so the markups are low. There is no overpriced house wine: the cheapest bottle on the list is $US14 ($15) and there are 200 wines by the glass, including a 1979 Cotes du Rhone for $US5.
Before anyone sneers and says the US is about quantity and not quality, bear in mind that there are also 38 vintages of Chateau MoutonRothschild, beginning with 1901, while the Chateau Latour goes back to 1920 and the Chateau Lafite Rothschild to 1881.
The oldest wine in the cellar is an 1802 madeira, and there are 300 madeiras, ports and sherries served by the glass.
‘‘ People come from all over the world to sample the wines,’’ Shell tells us, and a few minutes later my ears prick up when I hear the conversation at the next table where one of the three sommeliers is taking an order from a pair of Frenchmen.
‘‘ Are you sure you want to drink a vintage so young?’’ he asks them. ‘‘ We do have them going back to the 1980s, if you wanted to try one more mature . . .
‘‘ I served a 1920 Chateau Margaux last night. That’s a great vintage. People think of 1928 and 1929 as great vintages, but that 1920 was also excellent.’’
Our own foray into Bern’s list is more modest, as Shell suggests three glasses we might sample to go with the different courses. None of them costs more than $US9 but they’re all wonderful wines and perfect matches for the scallops (no chorizo) and the best steaks we’ve eaten. The steaks are so tender you could almost pour them into a glass and drink them.
Bern’s serves 600 diners a night, 900 a night at weekends, and about half of the diners choose to take the free guided tour of the kitchen and wine cellar after their main course, as they make their way to the upstairs dessert room.
The cellar is surprisingly small and nondescript. Only 90,000 bottles are kept on the premises, the rest in three nearby warehouses, and rows of wine bottles look like rows of wine bottles no matter where you are. It’s just that Bern’s has got more of them than anyone else. The rare vintages are kept under lock and key with tight, 24-hour security.
‘‘ How can you serve so many wines by the glass? What equipment do you use to keep them fresh?’’ I ask our guide, Patrick Shell, who happens to be our waiter’s husband. This is where they met, so there’s romance, too, at Bern’s.
‘‘ We don’t use any special equipment,’ he tells us. ‘‘ It’s the sheer volume of turnover. The bottles aren’t open long enough for the wine to deteriorate.’’
Just like home, then. And that’s what Bern’s feels like. Give or take a half million bottles of wine.